O blessèd breeding sun

Of all of the soliloquies within the play, Timon’s from Scene 14 are arguably the most vitriolic, and the most “diseased.” Scene 15 calls to mind Lear’s famous own words (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks”) from Act III, Scene 2 in that both invoke Nature to restore a terribly upset and neglected balance. The injunctions are strategic; it is not enough that the men have been wronged but that Nature too has been usurped and that, consequently, it is time to reestablish her precedence. When Lear commands the thunder to “Crack nature’s moulds” so that “all germens spill at once / That make ungrateful man” (10-11) one cannot help but compare it to Timon’s demand that Nature “Ensear thy fertile and conceptious womb;/ Let it no more bring out ingrateful man” (188-189). The power invoked is as primordial as it is apocalyptic; allusions to conception, the womb, and monstrous births suggest that both Timon and Lear believe “ungrateful man” to be inherently corrupt. Viewed within the context of Paracelsian theories of cure, only an epidemic could arguably “cure” a population so heavily afflicted. Timon’s opening soliloquy from Scene 14 certainly seems to confirm this philosophy:

“O blessèd breeding sun, draw from the earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb
Infect the air. Twinned brothers of one womb,
Whose procreation, residence, and birth
Scarce is divident, touch them with several fortunes,
The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune
But by contempt of nature.” (14.52-59)

"Paracelsus", attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (date unknown)

“Paracelsus”, attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (date unknown)

Within the first two lines, Timon ascribes the power of miasmic contagion to the sun, which draws “from the earth / Rotten humidity” and subsequently infects the air. His language succinctly and poetically expresses a common early modern belief that planetary alignment, as well as mysterious vapors, contributed to the spread of the plague. Physician Gideon Harvey’s “Discourse on the plague,” despite being published after Shakespeare’s death, sheds some valuable light on the perceived relationship between the earth, the air, and microcosmic infection. Writing on the cause of the plague, Harvey appears singular in his determination:

“The Earth can only be supposed the Womb of such venene fumes, which imbibing all sorts of stinking or putrid Bodies, embraces them within her close recesses, coagulates and kindles them into Pestilential Arsenical flames; so that all manner of stinks or rotten Bodies expiring into the air, are returned by moderate Rains, and so suckt in by the Earth” (5).

"Astronomer" by Albrecht Durer. From "Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis" (1504)

“Astronomer” by Albrecht Durer. From “Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis” (1504)

Rather than let the Earth simply “embrace” the putrid bodies once more, Timon implores the blessèd sun to draw their contagion out, infecting the air of all terrestrial inhabitants. Nature, “To whom all sores lay siege,” is herself infected; the only remedy for man’s ingratitude is to resort to a state of chaotic inversion, thereby forcing mankind to effectively cancel itself out. In response to “contempt of nature,” Timon demands to “Raise me this beggar and deject that lord” (59-60). Digging in the earth, Timon finds a hidden cache of gold and subsequently praises its ability to bring about such chaotic inversion:

“This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappered widow wed again.
She whom the spittle house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th’April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations; I will make thee
Do thy right nature.” (34-44)

Critics from Rebecca Totaro (who has written extensively on the plague in early modern England) to Karl Marx have analyzed the complex role gold plays within the drama. It would be naïve in many ways to suggest that Timon of Athens is not a critique aimed at the greediness of those in power; consequently, gold finds itself at the epicenter of infection, spreading contagion as often as it changes hands. In many ways, however, the play’s many morals revolve around the notion of currency as a mythical construction, paradoxically transient even as it is tactile. While the first half of the play emphasizes gold’s relative scarcity, the second half depicts gold as an elemental, even common product of the earth. When Timon demands a humble root to satisfy his hunger, the earth vomits up gold in response. Such inversion is patterned in the effect the same gold has on society: to raise the status of beggars, whores, and pocky widows despite their lack of “natural” merit.

Ultimately, while the value of a proto-capitalistic critique cannot be denied, it nevertheless dismisses the plague-ridden context in which the play was written. The gold within the play functions less as a figurative embodiment of the plague than as a harbinger of chaotic inversion brought about by natural forces– forces like an epidemic. Much like Thomas Dekker, who proclaimed in 1604 that “the plague’s the purge to cleanse the city,” Timon’s vision of a cure involves nothing short of a total pestilential sweep. Those harboring (gold) “tokens” (a colloquialism for the red spots which appeared on plague victims) will be marked for the culling.

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